How To Stop Stressing

Bar Refaeli puts on a happy face despite her recent breakup with Leonardo DiCaprio.

The good news is you're completely normal. Humans are designed to respond to sudden, acute stress; this helped our cave-dwelling ancestors evade dangerous animals, explain Dr Cate Howell and Dr Michele Murphy in Release Your Worries (Exisle, $29.99). "The stress response – or fight or flight response – is designed to protect us, not harm us. But a lot of today's stresses are ongoing, such as job redundancies, a family conflict, a financial threat or a divorce dispute."

And women tend to be more sensitive to stress than men, according to Dr Martin Rossman, author of The Worry Solution (Random House, $27.95). "Women are typically smaller, lighter and more vulnerable than men. Being extra vigilant helps women to survive," he says. Turns out, you can learn to "worry well" – so we asked the experts for their solutions to common stress-outs.

1. "People won't (or don't) like me"
Get palpitations before a party? Often convinced you;ve offended a friend because she was curt on the phone? "Fear of negative evaluation" is normal because we're pack animals, explain Dr Howell and Dr Murphy. "Social comparison was developed to keep us from being rejected by the clan. This explains why we worry so much about whether people like us and why we’re always looking to improve ourselves. But 100,000 years ago, we had only a few people in our clan. Now, with modern technology, we have billions of people with whom to compare ourselves."
No worries: Avoid "personalisation"; the assumption that other people's responses are directed at you, say Dr Howell and Dr Murphy. In other words, it's not (always) all about you, adds Jo Lamble, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist – maybe your friend's having a bad day. "Be empathetic towards that person and presume you've done nothing wrong until proven otherwise."

2. "I'll never find 'the one'"
For some singles, each year that rolls on with more awkward blind dates and postings of friends' happy wedding snaps on Facebook is like a knife in the heart. While just 21 per cent of women worry about a ticking biological clock, according to a 2010 poll of 2210 women by ForbesWoman.com, more women stress about landing a husband, says Lamble. "It's a big problem – I even have 22-year-old clients worried sick – but you can't just say, 'It'll happen.'"
No worries: Shift your focus, suggests Lamble. Stop fantasising about James Franco brandishing a diamond ring and work on your self-worth. "You don't need another person to make you whole or 'complete you'; this kind of thinking can lead to bad, sometimes abusive, relationships," warns Lamble. "Spend more time doing what interests you and, yes, this might offer more opportunities to meet someone. A woman you meet in a cooking class may have a brother or friend. Jog the same route every day or walk the dog in the same park; there's a high chance you'll see the same (eligible) men there regularly."

3. "I'm going to get cancer...maybe even die"
Health news headlines can make us trawl the net for symptoms of the latest pandemic. Or, worse, think about it 24/7. In a survey of 12,000 people across 12 countries, 80 per cent said they stress about developing chronic diseases.* This, says Lamble, can lead to "catastrophising", or thinking the worst. "The information we see in the media makes us change our lifestyle – exercise more, quit smoking, reduce alcohol intake – and that's great. But if you don't do anything about these worries, and they become obsessive, that's unhealthy." Michael Burge OAM, psychologist and director of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment, says catastrophising about death and disease is more common in people who've witnessed them firsthand. Ironically, "stress and fear of disease can make us more susceptible to it", he adds.
No worries: Talk about it with friends and family, advises Burge. "Denial or avoidance is just as unhealthy as obsessing." A 2010 study by the University of Granada, Spain, showed that fear of death in 76 per cent of children is due to their mothers avoiding the topic. The same may be true for adults, so speak freely.

4. "I'm going to lose my job"
You're in the office before 8am every day and your last key performance indicators were off the charts. And yet an email from the boss asking for a meeting sends you into a tailspin. You're getting fired! You're not alone: one-third of people worry about losing their job, according to the 2011 Bankwest/Mortgage & Finance Association of Australia's Home Finance Index survey. Thanks to the global financial crisis, we're more aware of how companies can use an economic downturn to lay off "dead wood", says Dr Darryl Cross, an Adelaide-based clinical and organisational psychologist. "The problem is, the more you worry at work, the less effective you are. You'll sabotage your natural self; colleagues aren't attracted to negative, stressed people," he notes.
No worries: If you're a perfectionist, balance out work and play, advises Dr Cross. "Ask, 'What else is important to me?' Increase that activity – whether it's the gym, sailing, baking – over 10 days. Most people report feeling less worried about work and will agree to continue for another 10 days." In the short-term, counter that scary email by simply asking the boss what the meeting's about and what you can bring, says Dr Cross. More Girl Scout-esque preparation equals less stress. Plus, avoid "over-generalising" words, urge both Dr Howell and Dr Murphy, such as "always", "never" and "everyone". For example, nix thoughts like, "I'll never find a job I like", "Everyone is talking about my poor performance” and "I always have to perform perfectly to avoid challenges to my management position". Negative self-talk is a waste of headspace.

5. "My house must look like it's from a magazine. At. All. Times."
You can see a scratch in a Caesarstone benchtop from 100 metres and dessert is always marred by the sound of your dustbuster. "It can stem from a fear of losing control and often kicks in when a woman has a baby," says Lamble. "If the house is clean and tidy, then if anyone pops in it signals she has everything under control. It is debilitating and can really interfere with relationships – especially when your partner wants to relax on the couch and you can't 'because the kitchen isn't going to clean itself!'"
No worries: Although you're unlikely to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – only 2–3 per cent of Australians are affected – here's a strategy used by those who do: give yourself time. Using brain scans, Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles, found that people with OCD suffer from uninvited thoughts compelling them to take action to dispel the uncomfortable feelings generated by those thoughts – because their brains are hardwired that way. "He taught patients to understand their problem is due to aberrant brain activity rather than personal weakness or craziness, and trained them to wait 15 seconds or more before taking any action," says Dr Rossman. The goal: refocus the mind on a healthier thought or action instead of the compulsive behaviour. After 10 weeks, Dr Schwartz found the brain circuitry was much closer to "normal" in more than half the subjects.

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